January 27, 2010

Loving what you do

I spend quite some time these days coaching friends, former colleagues or fellow entrepreneurs about “what should I do next“. There are some interesting parallels in these discussions. Strikingly, the self-imposed limitations of what people feel they can do constrain people’s choices in an amazing way. And this is true for any income group. Despite the fact that single mom with a low wage job has fewer choices than the millionaire several times over.

I found over time that many people can not simply tell you what they love best. But when you ask people why they are unhappy in their job, it is rarely because they don’t love what they do, but  more often because they feel they can not do things the way they want, or because the someone as a boss who does not value them and their achievements.

In this context, stumbling upon this very inspirational blog post from Cal Newport, author of a study guide, (thanks, Dave Ambrose for the link) has structured my thinking on career achievement amazingly.

Newport quotes work from Edward Deci who found that

“To be happy, your work must fulfill three universal psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness.

  • Autonomy refers to control over how you fill your time. As Deci puts it, if you have a high degree of autonomy, then “you endorse [your] actions at the highest level of reflection.”
  • Competence refers to mastering unambiguously useful things. As the psychologist Robert White opines, in the wonderfully formal speak of the 1950s academic, humans have a “propensity to have an effect on the environment as well as to attain valued outcomes within it.”
  • Relatedness refers to a feeling of connection to others. As Deci pithily summarizes: “to love and care, and to be loved and cared for.”

So for students, Newport argues that they should find something the really like and then become excellent at it. This will nearly always enable people to find a work environment where they can achieve a great sense of autonomy, competence and relatedness. Newport:

Your love of a subject will grow with your level of competence and autonomy

This also explains why many CEOs are unhappy in their jobs. Even if they are competent, the often suffer from a lack of autonomy. And if you encounter an entrepreneur who is unhappy, you can check with him whether his level of autonomy is where it should be.

Stephan Uhrenbacher

Coach for entrepreneurs, founder, speaker and author

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